Disrespect To Miss-Respect It's Alabama, 1963. A black woman stands before a judge, but she refuses to acknowledge him until he addresses her by an honorific given to white women: "Miss." On this week's episode, we revisit the forgotten story of Mary Hamilton, a Freedom Rider who struck a blow against a pervasive form of disrespect.
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Disrespect To Miss-Respect

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Disrespect To Miss-Respect

Disrespect To Miss-Respect

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Yo, what's good, y'all? This is Gene Demby from CODE SWITCH. So we get emails and tweets all the time from people who are like, yo, I love CODE SWITCH. I want to donate monetarily to CODE SWITCH. First of all, thank you all for that. Secondly, we should break down how this works. So when you donate to your local public radio station, that local public radio station invests in local journalism, in your neighborhood, in your city. And then, in NPR programming, NPR then takes that investment and turns it into podcasts you love - like CODE SWITCH, like Pop Culture Happy Hour, like It's Been A Minute with Sam Sanders.

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Alright. Cool. On with the show.

Just a real quick heads up - the following episode contains language that some folks may find offensive.


It's June, 1963. A 28-year-old woman stands defiantly before a judge in an Alabama courtroom. She's black. The judge is white.

DEMBY: That 28-year-old woman, her name is Mary Hamilton. She's a civil rights activist traveling around the South registering voters and organizing protests. And there's this other fight she takes up almost by accident, the fight to be called Miss Hamilton, as in M-I-S-S.


DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And today, we're going to hear about a little-known case that went all the way to the Supreme Court - a case that changed the way we address each other in our courts of law, a case that challenged a pervasive pattern of disrespect.


MARY HAMILTON: If you can't treat us with respect, get out of my jail cell (laughter). You're talking to a lady.

DEMBY: That voice you heard, that's Mary Hamilton. And we've got NPR's Camila Domonoske in the studio to help us tell her story. She's a reporter with the Two-Way blog at NPR, where she covers breaking news. Hey, Camila.


DEMBY: What's good?

DOMONOSKE: I'm all right. How are you all?

MERAJI: Good. I'm excited to hear this story because you pitched it to us a few months ago by saying it was so much bigger than the word Miss.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. And to understand why that little word - that honorific - mattered so much to Mary Hamilton, you first have to understand who she was.


DOMONOSKE: So she passed away in 2002. Like you said, she was a black woman working in the South. But she grew up in Iowa and Colorado in the '40s and the '50s. Some members of her family passed as white, but Mary refused, even when it meant defying her father. Here's her daughter, Holly Wesley.

HOLLY WESLEY: She was disgusted by the idea that people would pass, that they would deny any part of who they are. And she identified strongly with being black.

DOMONOSKE: Mary Hamilton wasn't always an activist. For a while, she thought she was actually going to be a nun. Then, when she was in college, she discovered socialism.

DEMBY: As one does.

DOMONOSKE: As one does. She dropped out of college, became a teacher. And then, as she was a teacher, she heard about the work that was being done in the South as part of the civil rights movement. Now, like we said, Mary Hamilton died in 2002, but we know how she felt in that moment when she first heard about this because she recorded these oral histories with her friend and former roommate, Sheila Michaels. Sheila was a white woman who recorded hours and hours of tape of the two women talking to each other.


HAMILTON: Who's the mayor of D.C. you've gotten into all that trouble?


HAMILTON: Marion Barry. Yeah, he used to party at our - we learned how to do the twist from Marion.

MICHAELS: We did not (laughter).

WESLEY: I can't do that anymore. I'm getting too old.

MERAJI: I love this tape. It's so obvious that they were really close.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, they were lifelong friends. I mean, they recorded these tapes in the late '90s, but they were roommates back in the early '60s when they were both activists in the civil rights movement. So like I was saying, Mary Hamilton knew she was going to be an activist as soon as she heard about the burgeoning movement.


HAMILTON: It's happening. We're finally fighting back. We're going to fight back. We're fighting back. We're not going to take it anymore. And I wanted to just quit and run and join. And I didn't know where I would run to. And I didn't know who I would join.

DOMONOSKE: So Mary left her job and joined the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE.

DEMBY: So I'll quickly explain to sort of comment here - CORE was one of the big six civil rights groups in the '50s and '60s, along with, like, the National Urban League and NAACP.

MERAJI: SNCC. Was SNCC one of them?

DEMBY: Yep, the Southern Christian Leadership Convention, which was Martin Luther King's group.


DEMBY: Yep. Right. And so CORE, today, is known as a kind of conservative group, but back in the day, there were like super, super about it. And they were the people behind the Freedom Rides.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Mary Hamilton was a Freedom Rider.


HAMILTON: We were Freedom Riders.

MICHAELS: And what was the training? The training was getting into a fetal position and cover your head?

HAMILTON: How to get beat up and not hit back. That's what it really amounted to. And you have to understand, we were very nervous because we didn't know what to expect. This was right after the bus burning.

DOMONOSKE: In the years that followed, she was organizing. She registered voters. She raised money. So she would drive her white Plymouth Valiant down these rural roads to new towns in the Deep South to organize from scratch, to start new core chapters, which meant a lot of glad handing, a lot of sweet talking.

DEMBY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: And then there would be protests with nonviolent resistance. And that didn't necessarily come naturally to her. Her first impulse was to fight back. Her daughter, Holly, says that other activists called Mary red.

WESLEY: And not because of her hair but because of her temper. So for a nonviolent movement, my mother was one who would get angry, aggravated - and I don't know if I can say but pissed off.

DOMONOSKE: She had to learn how to keep her cool.


HAMILTON: We had to practice nonviolence because if we didn't, we'd get the shit kicked out of us.

DOMONOSKE: There were dangers everywhere - police brutality, dogs, sadistic jailers, beatings, the KKK.

MERAJI: And she was a woman. And we know that comes with its own set of difficulties.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I mean, not only was Mary Hamilton locked up with accused killers, she was also at the same time fighting off officials in the jails who insisted that they needed vaginal and anal examinations. She stared down jailers who she suspected of plans to rape her.


HAMILTON: 'Cause I said, you have to kill me first. I will not be raped. Of course, I never thought what I would do if, you know, I was in a position and I couldn't budge. I'd just pray to die. Dear Father, just take me. Take me on to heaven. Don't let me be raped. But, I mean, I really meant it, you know. You have to kill me first.

DOMONOSKE: She was beaten repeatedly.


HAMILTON: That was the jail cell where they threw me on the elevator and ran the elevator up and down and beat me on the elevator. Yeah. They threw up and down. They'd say, scream, scream, you know. So - you know, nobody can hear you, Scream, scream. And just out of sheer meanness, spite, I wouldn't scream. I wouldn't scream. I wouldn't give them the satisfaction. I didn't scream at all.

MERAJI: It's so hard to hear how matter-of-factly she talks about these traumatic events.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. You can kind of tell how just pervasive it was. And, I mean, she wasn't just fighting racism from outside the movement. She was fighting sexism within the movement at the same time. Mary told Sheila about a lot of sexual harassment from other activists.

MERAJI: Which is a topic that feels very relevant right now.

DOMONOSKE: Yup. At one point, a drunken member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was sprawled on Mary Hamilton's bed insisting that he loved her. She told Sheila she tried to laugh it off, but he wouldn't leave. So she called for backup.


HAMILTON: Well, honey, I got on the phone and called Dr. King and said, Dr. King, please come and get Bernard (ph) out of here. And do you know, he got on the phone - someone else who was in the room told me what Dr. King had said. Now, Bernard, you get out of that room and you leave that little girl alone. Dr. King used to call me that little girl.

DEMBY: That Dr. King, of course, is the Dr. King - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?

DOMONOSKE: Yup. And as it happens, Dr. King later hit on her too at a conference in Memphis. Mary Hamilton said she was totally shocked. She fled his hotel room and wound up sitting at a train station in the dark alone for hours just to get away from the situation. Yeah.

And, I mean, those weren't the only instances. Somebody started a rumor that she and Sheila were lesbian lovers after she turned him down. There were other examples of men behaving in predatory ways. Anyway, Mary Hamilton met all these kinds of situations with a constant sort of defiance. And that fueled her activism. And it also brings us back to that word Miss - M-I-S-S.

MERAJI: Miss, which is the honorific for single women. And Misses is for married women.

DOMONOSKE: Yep. And, you know, me personally, I'd rather go by Ms. - spelled M-S - which doesn't say whether you're married.

MERAJI: But that was barely used in 1963, so.

DOMONOSKE: Yup. As it happens, Mary's a part of the story about how that became an option too, but we're not there yet. So suffice to say, that in the 1960s, Ms. was not an option. And for Mary Hamilton, Miss wasn't even an option.



DEMBY: Because she was black.


DEMBY: So this is the South, right? It's the '60s. White people, especially in positions of authority, would not use honorifics for black people. That's why you get grown ass black man being called boy and black women being called girl. Or they get called slurs. And even if they did use a name, it wouldn't be Miss Hamilton. They would just call Mary Hamilton by her first name. They would just say Mary, no matter how old she was, no matter who was talking to her.

DOMONOSKE: No matter how formal the context was and no matter how white women were being addressed around her.

DEMBY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: So I talked to Barbara McCaskill. She's an English professor at the University of Georgia. She's studied black American narratives. She's studied narratives of the civil rights movement. And her own mother vividly remembered not being called Miss.

BARBARA MCCASKILL: Segregation was in the details as much as it was in the bold strokes. The idea was to remind African-Americans, and people of color in general, in every possible way that we were inferior, that we were not capable - to drill that notion into our heads. And language becomes a very powerful force to do that.

DEMBY: I'm just thinking about the post-Civil War period and all these black folks in the South, these newly-emancipated black people who are giving their sons and daughters names that are honorifics, right? So if white people going to call them their names - like, if you name your son Mister or colonel or master, right? - then the white person addressing your son has to say Mister. And it's crazy to think about people resisting in the nomenclature. Like, you had to resist and fight at every front you could. And your name was a side of resistance, which is crazy.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. And generations later, Mary Hamilton is facing the exact same thing all over the South - people refusing to address her as respectfully as they addressed white people. And she was resisting too. There is this moment really early in her activism in Lebanon, Tenn., when she's arrested for illegal picketing. And the town mayor walks into her jail cell and sort condescendingly addresses all the women in there by their first names.


MICHAELS: And you said...

DOMONOSKE: By the time Mary and Sheila were talking about this, Mary actually didn't remember this time in jail. And Sheila was jogging her memory.


MICHAELS: You said, we are Mrs. Anderson (ph) and Ms. Hamilton and Mrs. Jones (ph), and if you don't know how to speak to a lady, then get out of my cell.


HAMILTON: Oh, that is funny.

MICHAELS: And then you said, and this place is a pigsty.

HAMILTON: Oh, yeah. Now I remember.

MICHAELS: Filthy jail.

HAMILTON: 'Cause that was quoted in the papers. Been in a lot of jails in my life but nothing as filthy as this one (laughter).

MICHAELS: And I said, what did he do? And you said, he left.

HAMILTON: He left.


HAMILTON: Get out of my jail cell. If you can't treat us with respect, get out of my jail cell (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Mary Hamilton was not trying to take no smoke.

DOMONOSKE: Nope. She wouldn't take it from a jail cell, and she wouldn't take it from a judge. And that took her all the way up to the Supreme Court.

MERAJI: We're going to hear about that after this break.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. All right, Camila, where we at?

DOMONOSKE: We're in Gadsden, Ala. It's 1963. Mary Hamilton is protesting again. She is arrested again. And the authorities refuse to call her Miss again. Mary's daughter, Holly, told me about what happened when her mother arrived in that courtroom to stand before the judge.

WESLEY: The attorney for the state of Alabama - it's very simple - said, Mary, what are you here for? And my mother responded with, I will not answer you until you call me Miss Hamilton.

MERAJI: I am just trying to put myself in her shoes and imagine how intimidating that must have been...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...And what a strong woman she is.

DOMONOSKE: And remember that Mary Hamilton is not from the South. She grew up in the North, in the Midwest, in the West. And her family had, at times, passed as white. They had an Italian surname that she later dropped. So she knew what it was like to be treated as a white woman versus as a black woman from personal experience as a woman who had walked on both sides of that color line before claiming her black identity.

DEMBY: Damn.

DOMONOSKE: Here's how Mary Hamilton remembered that moment with that judge.


HAMILTON: And the judge was sitting in this big chair that looked like it was swallowing him 'cause he was a little man. And he had his foot up on the desk - beautiful hand-carved mahogany desk - and his little old tiny runt of a skunk. And he's going, wouldn't you make a nice little heffer in my kitchen? Oh, my Lord. I wanted to hit him. One of the lawyers was a real young kid. He grabbed me (laughter). He said, I thought you were going to jump over that desk. I said, all I remember is seeing red.

DOMONOSKE: The judge ordered her to apologize. Her lawyer told her very quietly that she didn't have to. Mary told Sheila that in that moment, she needed that.


HAMILTON: I needed the strength of another human being to know that I was right. You know, I mean, I knew I was right, but, you know...

MERAJI: So did she apologize?

DOMONOSKE: She did not. So she was sentenced to a few days in jail for contempt of court and hit with a $50 fine.

DEMBY: That's a lot of money back then.

DOMONOSKE: So her lawyers challenged the fine and imprisonment as unlawful because the prosecutor had been violating her constitutional rights by treating her differently than he treated white witnesses.

DEMBY: Treating her differently because he wouldn't call her Miss?



DOMONOSKE: Because he called white women Miss but would not do the same for her. That case, Hamilton v. Alabama, was appealed and appealed and eventually made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously without even calling for oral arguments. They basically said, this one is pretty obvious - Alabama is wrong. You cannot call black people and only black people by their first names in court. That's discriminatory. And the precedent from that case stands to this day. I mean, there haven't been a ton of stories that are written about this case, but there was one on NPR a few years ago by Andrew Yeager, a reporter in Alabama. And he spoke to law students who were taught to use honorifics for everybody in court.

DEMBY: That's crazy. So this case that surprisingly none of us ever heard of, like, is enshrined in the annals of jurisprudence. Like, it changed the way that people are addressed in American courts. But like, what did it mean for Mary personally? Like...

DOMONOSKE: Well, they said they had to give her 50 bucks back.


DOMONOSKE: Mostly it was a symbolic victory, and it came around the end of her time as an activist. The decision was in 1964. Her health was suffering. She was exhausted. She had been beaten so many times. Her daughter actually told me that Mary was in a hospital bed when she heard about her Supreme Court victory.


MERAJI: And in these recordings, Camila, it sounds to me - and maybe this isn't the same for everyone - but to me, it sounds like she's almost laughing off these terrible stories, all these horrible things that happened to her. And the only thing I can think of is she's laughing to, you know, keep from giving up.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. All of those struggles, all the beatings, all the violence, it took a toll. But she never really gave up. Even when she left the movement, she became a union organizer. She was a teacher. By the time she taped her oral histories with Sheila, Mary Hamilton was fighting ovarian cancer. And there are moments in those tapes where she's so tired she doesn't know if she can even keep going with the memories of this time.


DOMONOSKE: Anyway, so you get down to New Orleans.

HAMILTON: I'm getting tired, Shi-Shi (ph).

DOMONOSKE: Oh, Mary, you're just getting to the nuts of the thing.

HAMILTON: I'll try.


MERAJI: Oh, that is so painful to listen to. Oh, my God.

DOMONOSKE: And she fought until the very end. She was chastising the hospital workers and her oncology ward for not being unionized, according to Sheila.

MERAJI: Go Mary.

DOMONOSKE: After Mary Hamilton died in 2002, Sheila Michaels gave a speech in her honor. It was called Most People Don't Understand What The Movement Was. It was about how integral she was to CORE, not just as a member but as a leader. It was about what being in the movement was like for women, for Mary in particular. It was a way to honor her friend, who Sheila called a hero.

MERAJI: A hero I've never heard of until you told me about her.

DEMBY: Yeah, me neither. How did you find out about Mary Hamilton?

DOMONOSKE: Well, this summer, I was working on an obituary for Sheila Michaels.

MERAJI: Sheila, Mary's friend?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, her old roommate, the one who recorded those tapes. Sheila Michaels started the movement for women to go by Ms., as in M-S, that version that doesn't say whether you're married or not. She was actually inspired by a piece of mail to Mary back around 1961 when they were roommates in New York both working with CORE. It was a socialist magazine out of Detroit. And it did use an honorific for Mary, but it said Ms. - M-S - Mary Hamilton. At the time, that was a relatively obscure etiquette option that you might put on a piece of like business mail if you didn't know if a woman was married or not.

DEMBY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: But women didn't use it to describe themselves. And Sheila thought, well, hey, maybe we could, maybe we should. Maybe this is a way to not be defined by whether or not we're married to a man. Mary, for the record, was not terribly enthused about this idea when Sheila told her this. Again, this is heart of the civil rights movement. Mary says, Sheila, we have much more important things to be working on.

And so, you know, Sheila spends the next few years as a civil rights activist. After the civil rights movement, she joins the women's liberation movement. This is not a coincidence. Sheila, like many of the women she worked with, said that her civil rights activism made her feminist activism possible.


MICHAELS: For me, that was the seeds of feminism. If I hadn't been in SNCC, I don't know that I would have been ready to just - I mean, I would've been ready to just jump in, but it wouldn't have happened.

DOMONOSKE: And she used that new feminist platform to push this idea that she had of a title that doesn't say whether or not you're married. And that eventually inspired the name of the feminist publication Ms. Magazine.


DOMONOSKE: By the time Sheila died this summer, there were obituaries for her all over the place that focused on her feminist activism and her role in popularizing Ms. as an option. Mary Hamilton was a footnote in most of those obituaries. She was the roommate who got the mail. In some cases, her name was actually misspelled. And I didn't figure out that she had her own battle over honorifics until I was trying to figure out how to spell her name right. And I actually reached out to Andrew Yeager, the reporter in Alabama, to ask for help with this question and discovered these parallel complicated intersection of stories.

MERAJI: This would have crushed Sheila if she knew this. I mean, obviously, she has passed on. But if she was looking on from the other dimension or whatever, this would have killed her.

DOMONOSKE: I think that's right. Sheila recorded more than 80 oral histories of civil rights activists. She really wanted the stories of the civil rights movement and the lesser-known women and men in it to be remembered. And for her own civil rights activism to be such a small part of her own obituary, and then for her friend Mary to be left out of the story almost completely, you're right. That would not be the way that that she would have written her own obituary, I can tell you that much.

DEMBY: Was Mary - was she well-known in her day?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, she was famous at the time. She was talked about in speeches. She made the news. She was on the cover of Jet magazine. But by the time she died in 2002, there wasn't much attention that was being paid to her story.

MERAJI: So these two women, these two close friends who are fighting a lot of the same battles but clearly starting from different places and facing different hurdles - you know, Sheila's fighting for an honorific that didn't define women based on their relationship to men, Mary Hamilton as a black woman who was fighting just to be addressed by the honorific that a white lady like Sheila took as a given that she wanted to cast off. It's just - I love this story.

DEMBY: The fact Sheila's story is so well-known relative to Mary's is part of this larger pattern in the way we tell stories.

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. Yes.

DOMONOSKE: For sure. I mean, first of all, the fact that the civil rights movement helped birth the women's liberation movement is something that I had never thought about. I don't think we talk about it nearly enough, although if you talk to the women who were there, they'll tell you all about it. And then the central role that women played in the civil rights movement as leaders, as strategists, as people who were feeding activists and opening up their homes to them and putting their bodies and their safety on the line in the way that Mary Hamilton did, it's something that just gets wiped out of the narrative so often. And it was happening even then. Here's Mary Hamilton talking to Sheila.


HAMILTON: There would not have been a movement without the women. And yet still, women are ignored when the kudos are being...

DOMONOSKE: And then white women who went on to become feminists like Sheila did get written into the history books. And even though Sheila spent years trying to tell Mary's story, Mary was mostly forgotten.

MERAJI: Surprise.

DOMONOSKE: I mean, look. There are so many stories about black women's central crucial roles in the women's liberation movement and in the civil rights movement if you just look for them. They're there. They're documented. People have been telling these stories. But in terms of what we remember culturally, if you think of the iconic images of the feminist movement of the 1970s, it's white women holding protest signs for the ERA and for abortion rights. And if you think of the most famous images of the civil rights movement, it's men marching. What's left out of both of these pictures is the black women who made it possible.


DEMBY: So, Camila, we usually turn these honors over to our guests, so what is the song that is giving you life?

DOMONOSKE: Nina Simone is giving me life right now, specifically "Trouble In Mind."


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Trouble in mind. I'm blue. But I won't be blue always 'cause the sun's going to shine in my backdoor someday.

DEMBY: That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter, we're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. As always, you can holler at us at codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

DOMONOSKE: Huge thanks to Columbia University and the estate of Sheila Michaels for letting us use that tape of those oral histories. And thanks to historian Colin Morris and his student Tashae Smith of Manhattanville College for helping me understand those oral histories.

Thanks also to Andrew Yeager at member station WBHM and to the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage for their recordings of Sheila Michaels. And huge thanks to Nell Irvin Painter, Mary King, Joan Browning, William Chafe and Barbara McCaskill for their help in understanding the historical context around the story. You guys were great.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun. And we had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Steve Drummond, Leah Donnella, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng (ph). Special shoutout to Jessica Lartigue (ph) for editorial input.

MERAJI: Thanks, Camila.

DOMONOSKE: Oh, thank you for letting me come on your wonderful podcast.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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